Posted by Damien McFerran
Magic is on the cards
FTL's seminal RPG Dungeon Master kick-started an entire genre when it was released at the tail-end of the '80s; the gaming public fell in love with the concept of immersive, first-person adventures and developers fell over themselves to replicate the same atmospheric feel witnessed in the Atari ST classic.
It wasn't just Western game designers who caught the first-person bug, though; their Japanese counterparts were similarly impressed with Dungeon Master's innovative viewpoint and quickly set about creating RPGs along the same lines – albeit with the traditional framework of turn-based combat. Sega's Shining in the Darkness on the Genesis/Mega Drive was one of the first and despite its myriad shortcomings managed to gain a sizeable following; it also gained imitators of its own, the most notable being HAL's Arcana, which was also known as The Card Master in its native Japan.
Arcana is essentially the game Shining in the Darkness should have been. The same gameplay remains in place: there's a central hub village where you can purchase weapons, stock up on items and save your progress. The individual dungeons are dotted around a world map, with each having to be tackled in sequence. Enemy encounters are random and come without warning, consisting of turn-based combat involving your team of adventurers and multiple foes.
Visually, Arcana is head and shoulders above Shining in the Darkness. The designers have used a Tarot theme and the majority of the characters and items in the game are represented as cards. This is initially jarring as sprites seem to float on the screen, disconnected with the world itself. However, as a visual device it's incredible effective, lending Arcana an aesthetic which pre-dates both the Pokémon and Magic the Gathering phenomenons.
The levels themselves showcase far more variety than those seen in Shining in the Darkness; instead of being exclusively confined to underground environments Arcana places you in ice palaces, forests and other locations. Although the general gameplay never changes, the graphical differences between these levels helps prevent things from becoming too stale, which is considerable risk when you take into account the rather repetitive nature of the dungeon-crawling adventuring.
The battle system doesn't offer up any massive shocks but the use of elemental attributes brings some welcome strategy to proceedings. It's the usual suspects – fire, wind, earth and water – but consideration must be taken before dashing into a battle situation. It's even possible to summon an elemental spirit to become a member of your party and fight on your behalf.
Despite its relatively straightforward and enjoyable RPG action, Arcana is almost infamous for its random bouts of astonishing unfairness. In other RPGs, it's only the death of the lead character that usually triggers a restart but in Arcana if any of your party bite the dust – with the exception of your currently equipped elemental spirit – you're unceremoniously dumped back to your last save. This problem is compounded by the generally harsh nature of the game's boss encounters, with almost every end-of-level guardian appearing without warning and requiring repeat visits before you finally have the knowledge (and experience) to make them succumb.
One of areas where Arcana really excels is music; the soundtrack to this game is simply fantastic. The SNES certainly isn't short of aural masterpieces but HAL's musicians have been able to make the hardware positively sing. The medieval tunes are a perfect fit for the fantasy action and the battle theme is particularly stirring, lending even the most minor of encounters with a sense of urgency and importance.
Like Shining in the Darkness, Arcana suffers due to its Japanese origins. Dungeon Master was refreshing because it offered tense real-time action; if you were attacked by a group of Chaos Knights then your natural reaction was to run away as quickly as possible and try to find a door you can hide behind or a stash of items or weapons with which to fight back with. However, because Arcana's enemies are never seen until you actually fight them, that sense of impending doom is lost. Also, the turn-based combat robs the game of tension, although it does of course transform it into a more methodical and tactical proposition.
It's perhaps best not to consider Arcana – or Shining in the Darkness, for that matter – to be a Japanese take on the Dungeon Master concept; in fact the only real link between the games is the perspective. Arcana is essentially a traditional Japanese turn-based RPG but viewed through the eyes of the protagonists rather than in the third person. When considered in these terms it's clear that the game is hugely enjoyable and incredibly well-realised; the levels are just long enough to present a challenge, the range of playable characters is pleasingly vast and the combat boasts an acceptable degree of depth. It's only the occasionally frustrating unfairness of the Game Over situations which present a real problem.
While it's unlikely to be considered as one of the format's finest RPG experiences, Arcana is unquestionably worthy of investigation if you're a fan of the genre but crave something a little more unique than the norm. Fans of Shining in the Darkness are likely to view the game as shameless plagiarism, but even they should be willing to admit that HAL's effort manages to outperform Sega's original in practically every department – although the game can be unduly harsh on the player at times.